A few weeks ago, the international community was in tumult as news of the latest North Korean missile launch was announced, and the 24-hour news cycle spun its usual stories of imminent nuclear catastrophe.
However, this past week, reactions to the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-un’s older brother who until his death lived in exile in the semi-autonomous Chinese region of Macau, were relatively muted even though the news of his assassination might anticipate dreadfully turbulent times for North Korea in the near future.
Kim Jong-nam’s life was as bizarre as it was ultimately tragic.
Once the favorite son and proposed successor of the supreme leader Kim Jong-il, he publically fell from grace when he was arrested in Japan trying to go to Tokyo Disneyland on a forged Dominican passport.
Ah yes, Disneyland, the scourge of any would-be dictator.
And now, as the current consensus holds, he was ordered assassinated by his own brother, or at the very least somebody else highly placed within the North Korean government. As far a dictatorial or royal lines go, fratricide is not a historically rare occurrence. But in the case of North Korea the murder of a member of the Kim dynasty is unprecedented and carries deep implications.
Kim Jong-un has already condemned many government officials to death, one for a crime as trivial as slouching in their chair during a meeting, but he followed the policy of avoiding killing any blood relatives.
His powerful uncle Jang Sun-Taek, who until his execution many people thought was the power behind the throne, was only an uncle through marriage. If a member of the dynasty fell out of favor they would simply be sent into a long unofficial exile at foreign postings or be left to dissolutely loaf around like Kim Jongnam in Macau.
This reticence to kill family members can be traced to the foundational mythology of North Korea’s leadership regime, which claims for the Kim Dynasty miraculous life stories and powers.
For example, Kim Jong-il’s official biography states that as he was born on the top of the Korean Peninsula’s highest mountain, Mt. Baekdu, winter suddenly gave way to spring and a double rainbow formed in the sky to celebrate his birth. In reality, Kim Jong-il was born in Siberia. Basically, members of the Kim Dynasty are presented to their people as gods or god-like figures.
If it trickles down to the common people, or at least circles within the lower ranks of the ruling classes, that the deity-like status of the Kims is just a mirage, it could imperil Kim Jong-un’s rule by removing one of his most substantial cultural protections. These cultural protections underpin and inform his rule.
Whatever risk that Kim Jong-nam could have posed as an outside tool does not seem to equal the newly assumed risk. Furthermore, this assassination is reported to have irked China, whose security services were said to have placed Kim Jong-nam under their protection.
The irrational killing of Kim Jong-nam is likely an external sign of a growing instability and erratic tendency within the North Korean government. Regimes act with reckless aggressiveness when they are at their most internally endangered.
For example, the Argentinian Junta, facing domestic discontent, thought it would be a good idea to go to war with Britain over the Falkland Islands. It was not a good idea. If North Korea is in such a state, what inadvisable course will it pursue?
The past missile test was not an irrational act in the same category as the assassination of Kim Jong-nam. It falls neatly into a pattern of North Korean brinkmanship and bargaining with Western powers and China. North Korea is often shown as a crazed country, but it acts with supreme rationality in regard to its nuclear weapons program.
Once it has developed more advanced nuclear weapons capabilities, what power would ever risk invading it or attempting to destroy it from within?
Its precisely because the assassination of Kim Jong-nam does not fit into this otherwise rational narrative, that its implications are so frightful.
Now, admittedly, the evidence connecting Kim Jong-un to the assassination is circumstantial.
The chemical used to kill Kim Jong-nam, VX, is one that North Korea is reported to have acquired in large amounts, and numerous North Koreans are suspected in the ongoing investigation.
But the person who ultimately gave the order could have been someone else. Kim Jong Nam had no shortage of enemies.
It was rumored that he was extensively involved with money laundering. But that being said, the effect of his murder would be similar because although it would not be a fratricide it would still show the mundane mortality of the Kim dynasty.
The fraught nature of this mortality is often neglected in popular discussions of North Korea’s leadership.
If followers of foreign policy want to adequately understand where diplomatic responses to North Korea should go, they should devote far more attention to the evolving dynastic intrigues of the North Korean leadership than they have previously.
Fear and responses to nuclear weapons cannot be separated from an adequate understanding of the people in control of them.